Agitator has its own classification in the hockey world. Agitators are the players who drive their opponents insane but rarely deliver the catharsis of dropping the gloves to settle the score. Instead, agitators run up the mental score until their opponents take penalties or lose their composure, which only adds to the opponent’s frustration. Before long, agitators live rent-free inside their opponent’s heads, and the Pittsburgh Penguins have a long, distinguished line of these players.
The Penguins also have a glorious line of tough guys willing to settle those scores, too. We outlined the Penguins Top 5 Toughest players, too. It’s not that agitators aren’t tough. They do take a beating, sometimes far worse than the tough guys for whom the situation gets settled.
No, agitators keep going and going. The rules are merely suggestions to the best agitators, and somehow, someway, they are caught bending the rules far less often than those who retaliate. Call them dirty if you like, but most NHL teams preferred to call them a teammate.
As we compiled the list, we realized the players were invaluable but also not always well remembered. Each one has a stain on their resume, which they would probably take back. Such is the price of playing on the line, and sometimes crossing it.
Honorable mention: Colby Armstrong. He was a pesky player who delivered big hits, a good yapper who irritated opponents, and he knocked home 40 points (16g, 24a) in just 47 games during the 2005-06 season.
Pittsburgh Penguins Top 5 Agitators
5. Jarkko Ruutu
Ruutu lived under the skin of opponents like a mosquito bite. He infuriated some of the toughest players in the game, like Milan Lucic and Dion Phaneuf. He hit players between the whistles, after the whistles, and he didn’t miss many chances to draw ire.
In two seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins (2006-07, 2007-08), Ruutu played 152 games with 13 goals and earned well more than the assessed 263 PIMs.
This clip is just gold. It tells the story of Ruutu:
4. Darius Kasparaitis
Many fans wanted Kasparaitis on the Tough Guys list. However, the Penguins defenseman was agitator from the puck drop. Lost in the din of history, Penguins fans despised Kasparaitis when he was a New York Islanders defenseman. He hacked and whacked the Penguins superstars with glee. Kasparaitis tortured the Penguins with hits, sticks in the ribs, sticks in other places, and every form of agitation he could use.
After the Penguins acquired the Lithuanian Devil, and he became a fan favorite as he pounded the Philadelphia Flyers and other Penguins rivals. Kasparaitis also sent a star player down the path of retirement when he leveled Eric Lindros with a perfectly legal and thundering open-ice hit in 1998.
Kaspairits was a fearsome open ice hitter, and more than a few players were immediately changed from looking at the puck to staring into the arena lights…from their back. Kasparaitis delighted in unnerving opponents and didn’t always stick to the rulebook.
3. Matt Cooke
Cooke was a pure agitator but had plenty of hockey skills, too. In Vancouver, he was an occasional top-six winger with talented players like Markus Naslund. In Pittsburgh, he flashed tremendous game as a grinder. He was a member of the Kennedy-Staal-Cooke line, which helped the Pittsburgh Penguins to the 2008 Stanley Cup Final and the 2009 Stanley Cup championship.
He was a good hockey player and a brutal hitter. At 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds, Cooke rang more than a few bells with hits that were legal at the time but later deemed illegal. However, Cooke’s style didn’t change with the changing game. It may be unfair to call Cooke a headhunter because he was a good hockey player, but he dished more than a few headshots, including some after the league and the Penguins requested no more.
Like other players on the list, Cooke’s actions also shoved a star player towards retirement. In 2010, Cooke blindsided Boston Bruins center, Marc Savard with a shoulder directly on Savard’s chin as Savard followed through on a wrist shot. At the time, it was a clean hit, but the severity and resulting injury forced the league into action.
The game was changing. Head hits became taboo, and Cooke’s blow lurched the NHL into serious rules changes. Cooke struggled to adjust to the times and earned increasing suspensions after 2010. On the eve of the 2011 playoffs, Cooke was suspended for 10 games and Round One when he elbowed New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in the head.
Cooke tried to modify his game. In 2011-12, he scored a career-high 19 goals. But he inched ever closer to the edge again and received more suspensions in the final two years of his career with the Minnesota Wild.
Cooke walked the tightrope for his team and increasingly fell off as the game and attitudes changed, but he was a prototypical agitator. He was fast, physical, had some scoring touch and knew part of his role was to draw penalties. He played five seasons for the Penguins with 352 games, 67 goals, and 416 PIMs.
2. Matthew Barnaby
What can be said about Matthew Barnaby? When he was on the ice, it was Barnaby’s world, and everyone else was a supporting character. Barnaby infuriated and antagonized opponents like few others. A constant string of trash-talking, pesky hits, and a needling presence, Barnaby was the premier agitator in the league.
Barnaby was one of the most unpopular players in the game and was often labeled dirty.
In 1998, Barnaby told HNIC, “I say a lot of things when I’m out on the ice, and sometimes I say things I probably shouldn’t say that gets myself into trouble. It doesn’t make me popular with other players.”
“I read my draft profile. (The scout) said he’s better when he gets beat up twice a game.”
Barnaby also had a penchant for big goals, including his 1998 playoff hat trick as a member of the Buffalo Sabres against the Montreal Canadiens. He played parts of three seasons for the Penguins from 1998-2001 and scored 33 points in 129 games. He also accrued 399 penalty minutes in those games.
Barnaby never ceased to be entertaining, even as his antics sometimes distracted from the show.
1. Ulf Samuelsson
For some, it was heresy that PHN didn’t place Ulf Samuelsson on the Top 5 Toughest Players list. However, Samuelsson was far more an agitator than a tough guy. Simply mention Ulf in Boston and watch the reaction 28 years later (Samuelsson kneed Boston Bruins leader Cam Neely in the 1991 Wales Conference Final. The hit created knee problems from which Neely never fully recovered).
Samuelsson’s extra-legal, illegal and legal hits frequently incensed hockey culture-guardian and Hockey Night in Canada analyst, Don Cherry who often referred to Samuelsson as a “meatball,” or additional terms which would be impolite in 2020.
Opposing forwards knew they were going to be hit when Samuelsson was on the ice. He was a pounding defenseman with large shoulder pads, like RoboCop patrolling the Penguins blue line.
Samuelsson peaked with the 1992-93 Pittsburgh Penguins. He wracked up 249 penalty minutes. According to HockeyFights.com, Samuelsson only fought 58 times in his career, which is probably a small fraction of the times opponents wanted to scrap.
Samuelsson was the perfect blend of physicality, defensive prowess, and rage-inducing hits. To call him an “agitator” would be to diminish his game, but it was surely a part of the legend of Ulf.